Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Banned in China

I’m not sure most of my non-China friends (whether “real” or “Facebook”) understand what those of us in China must do when we get on the internet. Here is a short list of some things we can’t access from China:

  • Facebook, Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Nearly any blog written by a private individual and hosted on a site like Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, SixApart, etc.
  • Photos (but not the text) on FlickR
  • Photos (but usually not the text) on Wikipedia

If you try to access any of the above, you don’t get a message saying “Sorry, this site is blocked”. Instead, you get something much more sinister: nothing. The first few times you see this you’ll probably just think it’s your computer, or your internet connection. Most other sites appear to work fine – CNN.com, Google.com, Expedia, TripAdvisor—so you might suspect that something’s wrong with just that site. “Is Wikipedia experiencing technical difficulties?”

It’s possible to get around this Chinese interference with the internet, but the solutions are annoying. The most common way is to purchase a subscription to a “virtual private network” or VPN. Essentially, this is a way to connect your computer to another computer someplace else, usually in the US, where internet access is unrestricted. A VPN turns internet access into a two-step process: the web page loads onto an offshore computer, which then feeds it to your computer inside china.

This works, and it’s reliable, but besides the cost (a few dollars a month) and hassle of setting it up, there are a few problems. First, it can be slow, because all the data has to go back and forth across the ocean an extra time (the technical term is “latency”). But worse, it’s not always convenient to install the extra software necessary to get your computer to talk on the VPN. It’s hard to get it to work from an internet café, for example, or on a mobile phone or iPad. It can be done – people like me do it all the time – but it’s a pain and requires some technical expertise.

Some people worry that China may close off VPN access, but I think this is unlikely. It would require somebody in the government to manually track every single VPN provider in the world and turn off the IP addresses. That’s doable – the easiest way would be to allow Chinese internet users to only access “approved” sites – but it would be a serious drag on all businesses, which need VPNs to securely conduct electronic payments, for example. But the bigger reason I think the government won’t bother is because there’s little point. Very, very few people in China care that they can’t access these (mostly) English-language foreign sites. Those who do care can afford the modest access fees and endure the technical difficulties. Like most other inconveniences in China, you just get used to it.

From 2010-07-21 001